The Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station is in the design and feasibility phases of a state-of-the-art renewable bioenergy research and operations initiative. This initiative will implement commercially available technologies along with Cornell-led technologies and utilize campus biomass resources. The initial focus is on the conversion of CALS Farms and Forests’ organic waste and Cornell food wastes through several cutting-edge conversion technologies for use in the Cornell Combined Heat and Power Plant (CCHPP). CURBI could replace a significant amount of Cornell’s fossil fuel use and could be used to heat greenhouses and other energy-intensive facilities.
Several bioenergy technologies are being considered with the idea that housing complementary systems under one roof would offer a unique opportunity for comparison, demonstration, and improved efficiency, while addressing current operational, environmental, and economic issues through integrated and collaborative efforts with researchers and extension experts. The necessary biomass is readily available and includes manure, food wastes, woody and agronomic (bioenergy) crops.
A comprehensive feasibility study of the following technologies has been completed with funding from the New York State Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) Cornell University and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences:
- Biodiesel Production. A commercially available processing system would convert 6,000 gals of waste vegetable oil from Cornell's dining facilities into biodiesel for use in the CUAES tractors and machinery and/or for heating of buildings. The conversion equipment is modestly priced. Cornell Farm Services has been purchasing biodiesel for use on the farms for the past five years with good result;
- Anaerobic Digestion. Anaerobic digestion is a biological fermentation process that occurs in sealed units at slightly elevated temperatures. During fermentation 60 to 80 percent of the biodegradable mass in organic matter is converted to methane and other gases. Anaerobic digester biogas systems are commercially available and could convert Cornell's large organic waste stream to biogas. This technology has been widely adopted in Europe but there are research opportunities to improve efficiency. CUAES currently composts approximately 8,000 tons of organic waste per year and could generate up to an additional 15,000 tons of biomass from energy crops as appropriate;
- Pyrolysis. Slow pyrolysis systems produce gas by heating organic matter in the absence of oxygen. The resultant biogas or synthetic gas (syngas) is high in carbon monoxide, hydrogen, and other combustible gases. Pyrolysis also produces a charcoal byproduct (biochar), a valuable soil amendment with a multitude of beneficial properties that also sequesters carbon for generations, making it the only currently known "carbon negative" biomass conversion technology. Pyrolysis can use a range of biomass wastes, including most urban, agricultural, or forestry residues, such as wood chips, straw or mulch hay, tree bark, animal manure, and recycled organics. The demand for biochar by the research community is very high, with numerous collaborations being formed to study its effect in soils;
- Direct Combustion/Gasification. Direct combustion utilizes woody or agricultural biomass products for the purpose of heat generation for building needs or for co-generation of electricity and heat. Efficiencies in the 80 percent range can be achieved with new technologies and systems are commonly available. The technology is readily available, proven, and relatively inexpensive. Minimal engineering would be needed for development. This technology will allow for evaluation of agronomic, forest, and other organic biomass inputs for conversion efficiency, emissions, and life-cycle analysis.